NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) – Death row inmate Oscar Smith was less than 90 minutes away from his lethal injection when Governor Bill Lee intervened, saying the Department of Correction had failed to properly test chemicals used in executions.
Lee has since suspended all executions in Tennessee until an independent investigator can look into what went wrong. TDOC officials say they can’t provide more details until that investigation takes place.
However, Text messages and other documents obtained by NewsChannel 5, released by TDOC in response to a public records request, details why Lee stopped the execution, providing more information about how the agency failed to test lethal injection drugs for a contaminant.
The text messages take us behind the walls of Riverbend Prison, a tightly controlled facility on execution days and protected by state secrecy laws that allow the TDOC to keep information such as the names of employees and pharmacies that deal in lethal injection drugs.
The state’s 104-page protocol, titled “Lethal Injection Execution Manualsays a pharmacist the prison works with to test enforcement drugs for endotoxins – a type of contaminant that can cause unexpected side effects if injected.
The day before the scheduled execution, on April 20, Kelley Henry, federal public defender and attorney for many Tennessee death row inmates, sent TDOC an email asking for proof that the drugs had been tested.
And 35 minutes later, according to a text conversation between two people, whose names have been redacted from TDOC, one person asked, “Can you send me the lab reports on Midazolam and KCL?”
Midazolam is the first drug used in Tennessee’s lethal injection process, a sedative that opponents say does not prevent death row inmates from feeling unconstitutionally cruel pain from the other drugs. KCL is short for potassium chloride, the last drug in the state’s three-drug sequence, which stops the heart.
The other person then sent those reports in response, which the TDOC also removed from public view.
Then the first person replied, “Thanks… is there also text on endotoxins (sic) or is that the same as infertility?”
The second person replied, “No endotoxin test,” then later added, “Is endotoxin requested? Sorry, I didn’t have it tested.
The next morning, at 8:50 a.m. on the day of the execution, the first person replied, “Could they do an endotoxin test this morning/today?
Then came the response: “Honestly, doubt it.”
But nearly four hours later, after at least someone at TDOC apparently knew that the execution protocol had been breached, there were indications that the execution plans were still in progress:
“Start prepping things at 4:30 a.m.,” one text read.
“Okay I’ll be there” was the response.
“10-4,” replied the first person.
Also on the day of the scheduled execution, a text message shows one person saying to another:
“Just going over things and doing math and stuff in your head ha”
Kelley Henry, at a press conference a week after the execution was called off – before the governor’s office released details of what happened – said Department of Corrections staff would not should not be responsible for such important chemicals.
“We have the lowest paid corrections officers in the country, and you ask them to do this job, you ask them to look at the drugs and the labels and determine whether or not they received the right label from the drugs,” Henry said.
The governor’s office said the independent investigation, which will be led by former Memphis-based U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton, will include why lethal injection chemicals have not been tested for endotoxins, the clarity of the TDOC Lethal Injection Execution Manual and TDOC Staffing. considerations.